Power of Incompleteness

Zeigarnik Effect

Look at the picture below.    

How badly do you want to put that piece together with the puzzle? If I give you a puzzle to solve with all the pieces available, will you be able to leave the puzzle incomplete?

Now think about another scenario. Imagine watching your favourite show, and it’s the second last episode that ends with a massive cliffhanger. You are desperately waiting for the last episode to put the whole story together, and guess what the last episode never airs (All the Game of Thrones book fans can relate). How would you feel? 

Irrespective of how it may seem, I am not trying to make you uncomfortable. I am just trying to point out that the human brain is programmed to complete actions or thoughts as far as possible. And, matters that are still open, like unsolved puzzles or incomplete stories, occupy us, and negative feelings up to stress arise. 

The incomplete nature of things affects us so much that psychologists have identified it as an effect in itself. The Zeigarnik effect is a psychological phenomenon describing a tendency to remember interrupted or incomplete tasks or events more easily than tasks that have been completed. This is also why we end up spending a lot of time thinking about things that still have to be done but which we have been putting off for ages. Another excellent example of this effect is when a person ends a relationship with another. The rejected party often desires to know the reason “why” the relationship came to an end. If the person forcing the break-up cannot provide a satisfying reason, the rejected party experiences frustration and confusion over the lack of closure.

The essence of The Zeigarnik Effect is “incompleteness”. When things are left incomplete, we feel uncomfortable, and our attention remains drawn to it until we can find some kind of resolution. Some of the highest-selling books and highest-rating Television shows are built upon The Zeigarnik Effect. As a result, people almost develop a compulsion to finish things.

This has the positive effect that we remember unfinished things, while we usually forget completed things quickly because our brain does not have to spend any more energy on it. A good example is a waiter, who knows precisely which guest still has to pay. The Zeigarnik effect also positively impacts marketing, as it encourages customers to pursue specific actions. For most people, the Zeigarnik effect is, therefore, an unconscious companion through everyday life. 

The Zeigarnik Effect was coined by a Russian Psychologist called Bluma Zeigarnik. She was fascinated by how food servers could remember lengthy food orders and match each meal to the right customer. However, she observed that the information vanished from the waiter’s mind as soon as the meal was delivered. The theory was that a yet-to-be-filled meal order created a state of “incompleteness” in the waiter’s mind, who could not let go of the information until a resolution had been made on the meal delivery.

As you must have guessed by now, you can find some self-evident examples of this effect everywhere. For example, if you’ve ever read Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code, you may already know that one of the ingredients to making that book such a page-turner was that each chapter ended with a “Zeigarnik Hook”. That hook compelled the reader to continue reading to find a resolution. Apart from TV shows and movies, even news channels use this effect to create excitement for the upcoming news. 

One obvious application or example of this effect that I want to talk in detail about is the use of the Zeigarnik effect in marketing. When advertising, you can begin by telling a story that attracts a potential customer’s attention and then keep them following in search of a satisfying conclusion. By peppering more hooks throughout the sales copy or by revealing small bits of the puzzle at a time, you will be able to engage the viewer deeper and deeper into the sales process.

Here are a few ways you can integrate the Zeigarnik effect into your marketing strategy - 

  1. If you cleverly integrate the Zeigarnik effect into your website, you can ensure a longer dwell time on it. You can achieve this by not placing all vital information directly on the start page. This not only provides more clarity, but the link to correspondingly more detailed subpages also ensures good networking within your website. The interested party is thus kept on the website as long as possible and, in the best case, discovers additional services or products that are relevant for him. However, one should not overdo it here. If there is a bit here and there, the visitor quickly loses interest and is frustrated by clicking through.

  1. Achieve higher click and open rates by encouraging people to open the email in the subject line. The Zeigarnik effect is widespread with double-opt-in confirmation emails or abandoned cart emails: Here, you often read statements such as “Just one more click…” or “Haven’t you forgotten something?”. But this also applies to regular newsletters. If you attract attention with an interesting subject and make the recipient curious, you have almost won. In the newsletter itself, the Zeigarnik effect is used again in the form of pictures and links. Thus, newsletters are usually teasers intended to draw attention to specific editorial contributions or offers. When the recipient clicks on the link, they receive the full offer, the opportunity to buy directly or read the article in full. The recipient is thus drawn deeper and deeper into the intended action to complete it. This effect is visually underlined by, e.g. load and progress bars. Especially when only a minimum of effort is required to achieve the desired goal, many will not be able to resist the temptation.

Similarly, you can use the effect for your blog posts, announcements and other social media content. You must be aware of this effect and know how to use it in the best possible way. Therefore, it is advisable to announce products, offers, and services with a serial character to retain customers. This applies not only to editorial articles, films, series, etc., but can also succeed with product extensions, new versions, special editions, newsletter series, upgrades and updates. 

Pro tip - When the task is completed, not only does the stress drop, but our reward centre is also addressed, and endorphins are released. And you know what that means, right? Happy customers!! 

What have we learned so far - 

  1. The Zeigarnik effect is a psychological phenomenon describing a tendency to remember interrupted or incomplete tasks or events more easily than tasks that have been completed. 

  1. The essence of The Zeigarnik Effect is “incompleteness”. When things are left incomplete, we feel uncomfortable, and our attention remains drawn to it until we can find some kind of resolution. 

  1. The Zeigarnik Effect was coined by a Russian Psychologist called Bluma Zeigarnik.

  1. One of the most valuable applications of the Zeigarnik effect is in marketing.